Tuesday, July 23, 2013

First Weekend In Mandalay

8:30 p.m., Day 1 - Saturday
I have to share this.  I just took my first shower in Myanmar.  I was a bit concerned about the shower getting everything in the bathroom wet, but it doesn’t.  More importantly, it’s the best shower in the world, although my friends’ shower in Taranaki comes in a close second. 
Hot water, plenty of space, huge shower head and enough water pressure to rattle your fillings.  Ideal.  Some say that when you’re down you should go to your happy place.  I think they mean it figuratively.

I’m planning to take it literally.  That shower is going to be my go-to place any time I’m feeling less than perky.  

To celebrate the shower I poured some of the $1.90 whiskey.  It’s actually quite good.  I also had some of the fruit salad and was less excited about the dragon fruit.  I don’t dislike it, just think that with a name like “dragon fruit” it should have a bit more zip or texture or something.  It was just a bit bland.

My goal is to stay awake until at least 9:00 p.m. tonight.  When I drift off it will be to happy thoughts of my new home in Mandalay.  The one with the kick ass shower.

6:00 a.m., Day 2 – Sunday
 I had a good night’s sleep, relatively speaking.  I managed to stay awake until almost 10:00 p.m. and then slept like a bear in winter until midnight.  I woke up, thinking it was morning but the light was coming from the air conditioning display rather than the rising sun.

I got back to sleep an hour or so later and slept off and on until 5:30 a.m., when the sun actually was coming up.  I crawled out of my princess bed (which is how it feels with the pastel blue mosquito net structure over it) and wandered into the bathroom, where I really enjoyed brushing my teeth.  One thing about flying I dislike is not being able to brush my teeth regularly.  I prefer not brushing them in public restrooms and on the plane isn’t appealing. I use those disposable things that you use with your finger but it’s just not the same.   Nice to be able to brush whenever I feel like it.

I just made a cup of 3 in 1.  Damn you, Samoa for getting me addicted to the stuff.  It’s instant coffee, sugar and coffee creamer, all  in a neat little packet.  You can get it in regular flavor or other flavors like mocha.  It is so easy and so tasty.   Obviously, I’ve never been a “real” coffee drinker.
I used my water dispenser for the hot water.  Another excellent feature of my new home.  It offers me either hot or cold water at the press of a button.  And when I run out of water, I just ask the security guard to bring me another, please.  

But it means I need to return my electric tea kettle.  I got it yesterday not realizing that I could get water hot enough for soup or coffee from my dispenser.  That means I’ll have 7,200 to spend…on 2 packages of cheese, perhaps? Or maybe I should use it to buy 20 fresh pineapples.  One of the things I need to figure out here is what things are a bargain and what are expensive.  That way, I can adjust my new diet to what I like and what is inexpensive, rather than just transferring my western tastes here, which could mean spending (wasting, really) a lot more money.  I’d rather eat like the locals, as long as I enjoy it, and use the money I save to travel over the Christmas holiday.

Speaking of which, have I mentioned that one of my top five “stuff to do before I die” items is to attend the full moon festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand in November?  It’s a huge annual celebration during which they pray to /for the souls of lost loved ones.  Aside from the opportunity to give a shout out to my family that’s passed on,  the ways in which it is done are spectacular.  Thousands of skylights are sent up at one time, each with a message written on it.  Skylights look like 3 foot tall hot air balloons, made of paper.  You light a candle at the base, that heats the air in the balloon which causes it to rise.  Imagine the night sky filled with thousands of light filled balloons rising above and drifting with the wind.

The other way also involves fire.  Candles are lit and placed on containers which have messages to loved ones and placed in the river to float away.  Another breath taking scene.
I’m really hoping I can take a couple of personal days (which we’re allowed) to go to Chiang Mai for the festival.  I love Chiang Mai and even though it will be packed to the gills with tourists, it’s still a once in a lifetime opportunity for me.  If I can connect with the nice young man from the plane who lives there, it would be even better.  If not, I’m going to see if I can couch surf.  Google couch surfing to find the site that explains it.  I’ve been a host before, but never surfed.

I met another teacher last night.  I wandered over to communal living space to see if the tv was working or if there was anyone around.  It’s very quiet here because 17 teachers took advantage of the long weekend to go out of town.  I met Barry, a Montessori teacher from Canada who’s about my age.  He’s been teaching in Asia for about five years and says that he really likes this school.  It is very professional and rigorous.  I think he was trying to tell me to expect to work hard.  He told me another teacher was going to be stopping in and I should hang around but it was almost 8:00 p.m. and I was pooped.  

Speaking of which, have I mentioned I’m not a fan of overhead florescent lights?  On my best day they are less than flattering and when I’m this jet lagged they make me look like something the cat wouldn’t even touch, let alone bring in.  I know it’s true because as I stepped out of the shadows to directly under one of the lights, Barry commented that I looked exhausted.  Or grotesquely near death.

Speaking of cats, I met one last night as I was making the 1 minute walk to the lounge.  Tiny, I think it’s less of a kitten and more of just a tiny cat.  One which is hoping to trip me on the stairs so I fall to my death, apparently.  I made the mistake of scratching it’s ears and saying hello.  After I returned to my apartment it sat outside my door for an hour, loudly asking for more loving.  Not the first time it’s happened, but usually it involves a boyfriend and too much tequila.

I just looked at the clock on my computer.  8:03 p.m.  That’s Orlando time.  Hard to believe it’s morning here and I’m watching the birds fly and the scooters and bicycles go by on the road a few hundred yards away.  I have a lot of work to do today and tomorrow to prepare for my first week of first grade, but I’m planning to take a bicycle ride early tomorrow morning.  This afternoon I’m planning to enjoy a swim in the indoor pool that’s just across the compound.  It’s tough working in a developing country, but I’m going to do my best to survive.

I’ve finished my 3 in 1 and have delayed my gratification long enough.  I’m heading in for a shower.  I have a jet lag headache, muscles and joints that are aching from all the hours imitating a pretzel on the plane and the pummeling I took from the Thai massage and I think that my perfect new shower will be just what I need.

Food and Prices

I pulled out the receipt from Ocean Superstore so I can return the electric kettle I bought yesterday.  Had to laugh as I looked at some of the items.  Here’s a sampling of what I bought and their prices, in USD:

Tamarind Toffee - $.58 minus 3 cent discount – apparently because they knew how bad it is

Laundry detergent – 500 g - $.72 – someone does my laundry for me once a week, but I have to provide the detergent.  They also clean my apartment once a week.  I am a princess.

700 g Fatt cheese crackers - $3.85 – comes in a large tin and tastes like Ritz.  I know they’re not good for a diet but really, did you have to put Fatt on the label?

3 Elephant Food Containers - $1.20.  Hey, I’m a little offended by that!  I am not an elephant, I’m just a little chunky.  These are plastic food storage containers – think the Glad stuff in the US.

Good hot and sour instant noodles - $.18 – Can you imagine if ramen noodles were this price in Samoa??  I think the name is incorrect, though, since “good” isn’t what I’d call them.  Fast.  Easy.  Those work.

78 g preserved pomelo - $.52 – pomelo is like a giant grapefruit and I wanted to try this, which  has been preserved and is a type of candy.  It’s good.  Not healthy, but good.  They actually had tiny grapefruit, by the way – imported from the USA.  My guide was very surprised when I told her they were usually twice as big.  Smelled good, though.

10 pieces Hers Korean Wonton - $2.00 – this is for the dumplings I ate yesterday.  They were AWESOME and will be a regular.  Easily two meals for $2.00.  Good for me but I wonder if the guys have to buy His?

1 steamed pork bun - $.25 – again, imagine keke pua’a for a quarter in Samoa!

2 tins Apache sardines in tomato sauce - $1.10 – large tins of sardines.  Perfect for a fast supper when I’m too lazy to cook.  Again – imagine if you could buy tinned fish in Samoa for $.50 a tin.  Would make fa’alavelave so much easier.

250 g President butter - $4.00 – butter is expensive everywhere in the world.  I don’t use much but I love it.

1.5 liter 7-Up (Vietnam) - $.95 – that’s how the receipt is written.  Does that mean only Vietnamese can drink it?  Or I can only drink it in Vietnam?  Oh, perhaps it was bottled in Vietnam.

2 drinking glasses - $1.60 – I refuse to spend 9 months drinking everything out of a coffee mug.  I got class!

206 g Cheddar cheese - $2.51.  Worth every penny.

Day 2 – 9:00 p.m. – Sunday

What a day.  I went to the school at 9:30 to see my classroom and meet with a teacher who would show me the ropes.  He was terrific and very helpful.  We worked together until noon, when we met the school director who asked to take us to lunch.

The director, whose the “father” of this school, apologized for not taking me out for typical Myanmar food.  Instead we went to a very nice restaurant which served “European” food.  The reason was that this restaurant had air conditioning and those serving traditional food did not.  It was about 100 degrees so I was all about the air conditioning.

It was a bit of a throwback – we were given “guest” menus which had no prices so we wouldn’t be constrained.  “We” included the receptionist who was my guide yesterday and is an amazingly helpful and cheerful woman; the teacher who was giving me the basics; and a young man who was never introduced.  

The food was amazing.  Because it was so hot, I ordered iced tea and spicy grilled prawn salad.  I expected a salad with a couple of shrimp on top but what I got was a tiny bit of salad and a bunch of mini-lobsters, which were both spicy and delicious.  The teacher and receptionist both ordered “American fried rice” which came with a piece of fried chicken.  Too funny.

Our conversation over lunch was wide ranging, from school discipline policies (no corporal punishment) to the economic future of China, Myanmar and the USA.  Clearly, the director is well-educated, well-traveled and a smart cookie.

Back in my classroom, the air con was not working.  I was quietly melting.  I met another teacher (Grade 2), another RPCV and asked for help.  Using her remote, we got my air con working.  Then we dished about Peace Corps and living abroad for awhile.

As we were talking (and I was getting zero work done) another teacher joined us.  He’ll be leaving this weekend, which is sad because we immediately hit it off.

Later, I went back to the RPCV’s room to ask to borrow a flash drive.  While we were chatting, the head of the Montessori preschool program came in.  The three of us chatted for a bit, then the Montessori teacher and I headed back to my room.  We had quite the conversation – seems she is the wife of the guy who hired me – my boss.  I explained what I was thinking about for my class and some ideas I had.  She had good suggestions.  We were feeding off each other’s energy which was great fun.

About 5:30 p.m. she walked me back to my apartment building because I wanted to catch the 6:00p.m. bus to shopping downtown. She invited me to join her and another teacher for a massage tomorrow afternoon.  $4 an hour.

At 6:00 p.m., several of us were on the air conditioned bus heading  back to Diamond mall.  It has five floors and is the only mall in Mandalay.  We split up and I headed back to Oceans to return the electric kettle and replace it with 20 pineapples.  Or 10 large watermelon.   But that would be silly, when I could buy 8 bottles of whiskey instead.  Crazy.

After picking up a few things I needed, like deodorant, I headed to the fifth floor of the mall, where I’d heard they had a  great sushi place.  I ordered salmon maki and shrimp maki rolls to go.  Total of $2.  I will so be going back there.

As I was waiting for my food, in came one of the teachers who had recommended the place.  We chatted and I noticed a young girl, maybe 1 year old, staring at me from the next table.  I smiled and waved.  She just stared.  I kept smiling and waving and she finally waved, much to the surprise and delight of the three adults with her.  I decided to take it to the next step.  I high fived my American friend then reached over to high five the little girl.  She just shook her head “no” and tucked her face into her mother’s neck.   I saw her looking at me again a few minutes later and waved at her.  She just shook her head “no”.  Seems I tried to move too fast in our budding relationship.  Whatever, it gave all of us adults an excuse to exchange numerous smiles and amused looks.  The people I’ve encountered here so far have been invariably warm and charming.

Back home, I ate the sushi (delicious) and drank one of the Thai beers.  It was equally good.  Now, I’m ready for bed since I have a ton of work to do tomorrow …before I leave early for a massage.  Work hard, play hard.

So far, I’m loving Mandalay.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Befuddled in Bangkok

After overcoming a few travel hurdles, I'm in Bangkok.  I'm currently sitting on a very comfortable bed, air and cable tv on, enjoying watching the rain outside my window.  Here's a quick story of my trip so far.

My friend MLT was a real trooper and got up early on her day off to give me a ride to the airport.  I confess, I wasn't much company on the way.  I was scattered and left many sentences and thoughts dangling as my mind darted to something else.  Nerves.

My check in luggage was a bit overweight but the nice guy let it slide.  He got a good tip and we were both happy.

As I waited for my flight to Atlanta I had to smirk to myself.  The flight to JFK, which I'd almost booked, was delayed by five hours due to a mechanical issue.  I would have missed my connecting flight to Narita.  My travel mojo was working.

The flight from Orlando to Atlanta was easy and uneventful.  I realized as we flew in to Atlanta that I hadn't been to the airport since before going to Samoa.  It felt weird, since I've flown into Atlanta on a weekly basis for years.  I know that airport as well as I know my own house.

Or at least I did.  Seems while I was gone they built a whole new international terminal.  It's a doozy.  Spacious and nicely decorated.  I enjoyed an overpriced and very small shrimp taco before boarding as a luxury, since I knew we'd be fed shortly after take off.  But who could turn down that last shot at Mexican food?

Boarding was easy and I was in the exit row, with an empty seat next to me.  Good thing, since SeatGuru.com hadn't warned me that I had the seat which has the slide mechanism sticking out in front of it.  Since no one was in the next seat, though, I had plenty of room.

We started to taxi out right on time.  Perfect.  Travel mojo in high gear.  All was well for about 15 minutes, then we slowed.  Then we stopped.  Then we started turning around.  Never good, especially when the flight is going to take almost 14 hours.

The captain explained they'd mistakenly loaded 3 dogs into a compartment with flammable canisters and had to move one or the other.  And because we'd burned so much fuel during our 15 minute taxi, we needed to top up our tanks.

My seat was just behind the wing and I noticed a couple of guys standing under the tip of the wing, looking up.  Then pointing up.  Then a couple more guys wandered over.  And a "fuel spill" truck rolled in.  This was not looking good.  The captain came on and said they were refueling and we'd be on our way in 10 minutes.  Since I was watching the refueling truck, which was not connected to the plane, either the captain was ill informed or his pants were on fire.

The routine of the captain announcing "Ten more minutes!" while I watched more and more maintenance guys looking at the wing continued.  Long story short, we had a fuel leak.  After 3 1/2 hours, they thought they had it fixed, the doggies and canisters had been separated and we were off.

We were taxing along when we started to slow, then stop, then turn around.  I already knew I'd miss my connecting flight in Tokyo, now the question was whether we'd make it out of Atlanta that day.

We were turning around because the winds had shifted and they were turning the airport around to have planes land and take off from the opposite direction.  While we waited for that, the sky kept getting darker.  It was now late afternoon and everyone who lives in the South knows that mean summer thunderstorms.

We were second in line for take off when they shut down the airport because of the storm. People got up, wandered around the plane, chatted on their phones.  We were used to the drill by now.  The captain shut down the engines so we knew it would be awhile.

After about an hour, the Captain announced they were letting planes take off.  But the captain of the plane in front of us didn't want to go.  We were informed that the cockpit crew only had 10 minutes before they timed out - which would mean the flight was cancelled and we'd have to wait for the next day, flying standby on what was already probably a very full flight.  

The other plane took off and the next thing we knew we were hurtling down the runway, taking off into black, stormy skies.  It was a bit rough for the first couple of hours but not too bad.  I was surprised and disappointed that when i ordered a cocktail I had to use one of my free drink coupons.  Really, Delta - 4 1/2 hours late, missing my connection and you can't pop for an ounce of scotch?

When we landed in Narita (Tokyo) they announced that they'd held the flights for Manila, Guam and a couple of other places.  All of us going to Singapore or Bangkok were to check with the gate agent meeting the flight.

In most airports that means one cranky agent trying to cope with rescheduling all the passengers.  Not in Tokyo.  There was a small cadre of gate agents waiting for us at the end of the jetway.  Singapore over there, Bangkok over here.  There was no line, just a scrum of tired but remarkably patient passengers trying to figure out how to get to where we wanted to go.  As I waited in the herd a young guy asked if I was going to Bangkok.  Yes, he was in the right place.  We chatted as we waited and I discovered he's from Chiang Mai, Thailand, a beautiful place and was in the US attending UVA.  We bonded and agreed to be travel buddies to make sure we both got on the next flight.

Amazingly, the Delta staff had printed all of our new travel docs and meal vouchers so the process was very quickly.  We were assigned two charming women who were on their 4th hour of overtime.  They promised to get us where we needed to go.  Which, it seemed, was the other Tokyo airport, about an hour away.

We collected our checked bags, went through customs and immigration and then hopped on the chartered luxury bus for the drive through drizzly Tokyo.  Before we left the terminal though, I did what my mama taught me and went to the bathroom.  It was one of the highlights of the trip so far!

The bathroom had many options.  Squatty potty.  Female urinal (not sure how you'd use that one).   And my favorite  - the automated, fully featured toilet.  The options included a bidet (big deal, been there, done that).  A bidet for your heinie (makes sense).  A blow dyer feature for your front or back parts.  You could press the "super strength" deodorizer if the need arose.  Or, if you were feeling shy, you could use the "flushing sound to cover the sounds of bodily functions."  Instead of actually flushing to cover those sounds, you just push a button and a recording of flushing sounds comes on.

When it came time to flush, I waited for the automatic swoosh.  It didn't happen.  How disappointing that this high tech toilet had to be flushed the old fashioned way.

Sadly, I didn't have time to experiment with any of the features other than the flushing sound.

After a ride to the other airport, during which we chatted and got to know each other, we were efficiently helped by another airline, who'd been put on alert that we were coming.  Luckily, they didn't comment on my overweight bag.

We were given meal vouchers and were determined to use them even though we knew that we'd be fed as soon as our flight took off in an hour.  Several small groups of us headed to the food court, which turned out to be one restaurant.  I used my money to get octopus balls two ways.  Both tasty, although I burned the bejeebers out of my tongue on the first one.

I left the crowd of fellow exhausted travelers, using the excuse I wanted to look at souvenirs.  I just didn't tell them I wanted to check out the toilets.  They were different at this airport but similar.  I tried all the features and am here to say that when I win the lottery, my house will be equipped with the fanciest toilets money can buy.

We quickly realized that although we had status on Delta, on the Star Alliance partner we were flying, we were the lowest of the low.  And because they'd added us at the last minute there were only center seats available.  My seat was tiny, with an obstruction under the seat in front of me so I couldn't extend my feet under the seat.  And, my thigh bones were too long to let me sit with my knees straight forward without my knees being jammed into the seat in front of me.  

That's how I sat for 6 1/2 hours.  I didn't need the blanket they'd thoughtfully provided because the temp was a sultry 90 degrees or so.  Hot enough that most of us were fanning ourselves until everyone else fell into sweaty dreamland.  I watched more movies and contemplated what I'd do to the engineers who'd determined that it was perfectly acceptable for my nose to be 13 inches away from the back of the seat in front of me.  I measured it.

Getting through immigration and customs in Bangkok was easy.  It involved a lot of walking but after sitting for so long it felt great to move.  I found the rep from the hotel I'd booked and explained that yes, I was supposed to have arrived the previous night and it was now 5 a.m. but here I was, more than ready to check in and get a shower.

The hotel, Thong Ta Spa and Resort, is lovely.  Ten minutes from the airport, with friendly front desk staff.  I opted to upgrade to the new building.  Big spender - that brought the price of the room up to $30.  I also booked a 2 hour Thai/Swedish massage, in my room.  Another $30.

While I waited for the massage, I went for a walk, excited to be back in Bangkok, smelling the spices and barbecue from the street vendors were were already set up although it wasn't even 8:00 a.m.  I couldn't resist getting a piece of barbecued chicken to take back for lunch.  A bargain at $1.00.

I spent a quiet day and am now getting ready for bed.  Yes, it's very early but that 4:00 a.m. wake up call is going to seem really early.  So far, this trip reminded me of why I do this.  I met some really interesting, well-traveled people, ate some food I'd never had before, and was taken outside my comfort zone.

One more flight - only 2 hours.  I'm ready!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

To Whet Your Appetite - and Mine!

Here are a few photos from the internet of Mandalay and the surrounding area.  Beautiful, isn't it?

Temple on Mandalay Hill

Longest teak bridge in the world

In the city

Another view of Mandalay Hill

John Denver

In 1974, I drove to Alaska.  That was before the Alaskan Canadian Highway was paved.  I drove over 2,000 miles on a dirt road.  With no radio.  Those were the days of 8 track tapes.  Yes, I'm older than dirt.

One of the reasons 8 tracks have fallen by the wayside is because the players ate the tapes.  They were literally tapes and all of a sudden the music would get hinky and before you could pull it out, the damn machine would just start mangling the tape.  My machine ate every tape I had with me except one.  John Denver's Greatest Hits.

I used to love JD and do again now, but admit there were a lot of years I'd start quietly screaming to myself when I heard "Rocky Mountain High".

I've been thinking about John today.  I just finished packing and as I packed I was humming that old classic "Leaving on a Jet Plane".  I'm cheesy.  I sing it every time I'm going away.  Even when I'm going away on a boat, which is a bit nonsensical.

John wrote "Leaving on a Jet Plan".  He gets it.  You want to leave.  At some level you have to leave.  But you don't want to leave.  It's hard to say goodbye.

The night before I left for Samoa, my friends Ralph and Mary Lou and I went out for Mexican food.  That evening I was laughing one minute and crying the next.  Tonight, we're doing a reenactment, except we'll be having Mexican take out.  My emotions are all over the board again.  Very excited.  Very nervous - mostly about teaching 30 first graders.  I can't wait to get on the plane.  I don't want to leave.

Why do I keep doing this to myself?  Because it makes me feel alive.  Because it keeps me outside my comfort zone which helps me grow.    Because I'll have more photos than anyone else in the nursing home.  Because it feels so good to come home.

If I think too hard about the fact that I'll be in Bangkok on Thursday and Mandalay on Saturday and teaching my new class next Tuesday it twists my brain into a knot.  So I'm taking it one day at a time.

Tomorrow I'll be leaving on a jet plane.  I'll be singing along with John in my head.
I'm leaving on a jet plane for this Mandalay...

not this Mandalay.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Road to Mandalay

In my last post I wrote about being "in the hallway", waiting for the next door to open.  Little did I know how soon that would happen.

I've been actively looking for work.  Corporate jobs, jobs with non-profits, jobs close to home or around the world.  I've done a lot of thinking about what was important to me in moving forward.  I need to make some money but that is not at the top of the list.  If my financial planner is reading this, he's banging his head against his desk.

Doing something worthwhile is more important.  Doing something I really enjoy is more important. Having an adventure is more important.

That made it an easy decision to apply for a job teaching first grade at an international school in Mandalay, Myanmar.  During the Skype interview, the school director and I discovered some things in common.  We both served in the Peace Corps.  We both got degrees from Northern Arizona University.  We both got degrees from universities in Michigan.  We both have homes in Florida.  And the least likely thing?  We both lived within a mile or two of each other in the 1960's.

I accepted the job offer for two reasons.  First, is that I really, really miss teaching the kids in Samoa.  I loved my time and work in Malawi but I didn't get to do the hokey pokey at all.  I didn't have several people wanting to hold my hand, all at the same time. No one squealed in absolute glee when they learned something new.  I missed all that and more from being in the classroom.

The second reason is the job is in Mandalay, Myanmar.  Hot diggity - talk about off the beaten path.  Just a few years ago tourists weren't allowed in Myanmar.  I know that I won't have all the amenities.  I've been told there are frequent power outages.  But when the power is working, I'll have air con in my apartment and my classroom.  Oh, and did I mention hot water in my shower?  Or the school's indoor pool that I'll have access to?

I doubt if cheese will be plentiful or inexpensive.  I suspect there will be no Mexican food.  But Burmese food is most influenced by the foods of India, Thailand and China - three of my favorites.

A new door has opened.  Am I nervous about stepping through?  You bet.  Scared to death.  But so excited.